Within every challenge, an opportunity


To say the COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges to the UW–Madison campus community — and the world — is an understatement. But the School of Education’s faculty, staff, and students not only found ways to get by — they often thrived. Now, the School is looking forward with hope and anticipating a fall semester that’s shaping up to be much more like 2019 than 2020.

Illustration for cover story

•  •  •

It was March 11, 2020, when UW–Madison announced it would be halting all face-to-face instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The university’s day-to-day operations were changing abruptly and dramatically. In the School of Education alone, faculty, staff, and some graduate students worked tirelessly to move more than 400 courses serving more than 2,500 different students to virtual formats in just more than a week, while nearly 1,000 employees figured out how to work remotely.

“The most vivid image I recall from that period was staring at a spreadsheet of all of the courses we had running across the School and knowing we had an aspiration to support every instructor and every course to continue on with as little disruption as possible,” says Maria Widmer, an instructional designer with the School who would play a key role in helping make the transition a success. “The scale and scope of it all was something I’ll never forget.”

From the onset, Dean Diana Hess focused the School’s overall efforts on four priorities: safeguarding the health of students, faculty, and staff; ensuring students complete their classes; maintaining, when possible, the university’s research and other operations; and joining in the national effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Yet front and center was figuring out how to move all those classes from traditional, face-to-face settings to alternate delivery modes from a distance.

“This was an extremely heavy lift,” Hess says of shifting all those classes online so quickly.

Maria Widmer
Maria Widmer, an instructional designer with the School of Education, remembers well the onset of the pandemic: “The most vivid image I recall from that period was staring at a spreadsheet of all of the courses we had running across the School and knowing we had an aspiration to support every instructor and every course to continue on with as little disruption as possible. The scale and scope of it all was something I’ll never forget.”

“For that first month, it was all adrenaline, all the time,” adds Anna Lewis, the School’s co-chief information officer and co-director of MERIT (Media, Education Resources, and Information Technology). “Our faculty and instructors were the biggest stars of this transition. They were ultimately the ones responsible for making it work. Not only were they teaching — but like everyone else, they were learning and adapting to a new environment. Over time they built competencies in video- conferencing and connecting with their students in new ways.”

The School also utilized “TechTAs” — MERIT student employees who provided support while courses were being delivered virtually in real time, allowing faculty members to focus more on delivering the content of their course.

Overall, the quick transition to distance learning is viewed as a success. That doesn’t mean it was perfect. And certainly, some courses were easier to convert to virtual formats than others. But the School of Education and campus ultimately made it through the 2020 spring semester — complete with virtual commencement.

“It became pretty clear to me that with the correct stimuli university faculty and staff can move at laser and light speed — much like any successful corporation,” says Jerlando Jackson, the Vilas Distinguished Professor of Higher Education, chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, and director and chief research scientist of Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory. “Universities typically operate at a very deliberate pace. We learned we can change large and difficult aspects about our work quickly.”

From surviving … to thriving

As spring turned to summer one year ago and it became clear the pandemic would remain a significant factor for the foresee- able future, campus centered its efforts on making sure it could provide the very best, high-quality education for its students in this new environment — whether that instruction took place in person (with limited capacity, mask wearing, physical distancing, and other safety protocols), online, or as a hybrid.

Impact 2030 graphic with "Believe in Big Ideas"Also during Summer 2020, the School of Education launched Impact 2030 — an ambitious initiative designed to dramatically strengthen an already highly regarded School. Thanks to generous donors who are backing these efforts with $40 million in support, Impact 2030 is helping the School push the boundaries of innovation, research, and creativity over the next decade leading up to its centennial in 2030.

While some aspects of Impact 2030 are evolving, the launch of the initiative paid immediate and substantial dividends during the pandemic, creating support for:

  • Tech Equity program: With classes being moved online or utilizing a hybrid of online and in-person sessions, the School provided students in need of laptops or better inter- net connectivity with assistance. Through this program, the School distributed 35 computers and 55 mobile hotspot devices to provide connectivity to the internet.
  • Bridge to Success scholarships: To better support students experiencing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 crisis, the School established the Bridge to Success scholar- ship program. The first round of scholarships, for students taking 2020 Summer Term courses, supported 367 scholars with $1.34 million in support. A second round of funding for the 2020 fall semester helped 502 students with $1.04 million in support. These scholarships were funded via a legacy gift to the School that was doubled utilizing Impact 2030 Morgridge Match funds.
  • Teaching Innovation grants: Across the School, 101 instructors received financial support to invest additional time reconfiguring or converting their courses to high-quality online or hybrid modes, or to physically distance face-to-face instruction. The School provided pedagogical and instructional design support, as well as technological help in the form of software and/or equipment when needed.

The Teaching Innovation grants — in conjunction with School and university professional development opportunities and guidance — proved instrumental in helping faculty and instructional staff deliver the high-quality learning experiences students deserve.

Rosemary Russ, an associate professor of science education with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and an Ann Wallace Faculty Fellow, says the change to online teaching was an opportunity not just to recreate what she had done in face-to-face instruction, but instead to disrupt the way teaching and learning are done at the university level.

Specifically, Russ wanted to challenge the idea that academic writing is the only — or even the best — way to demonstrate knowledge.

Rosemary Russ
Rosemary Russ, an associate professor of science education with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and an Ann Wallace Faculty Fellow, says the change to online teaching was an opportunity not just to recreate what she had done in face-to-face instruction, but instead to disrupt the way teaching and learning are done at the university level.

“I realized that a lot of my assignments require students to write papers, which is not anything they’ll do when they become teachers,” says Russ, who works with future educators in the School’s teacher preparation programs. “So I tried to make my assignments more authentic to their own lives and align them with the strengths we want them to have as professional teachers.”

Her efforts resulted in the development of new ways for students to demonstrate deep knowledge of the course content. For example: A returning student created a video of her own child exploring science in ways that took theoretical constructs from the course readings and made them tangible and visible. Another translated the course material into everyday language suitable for the youngest learners and wrote a children’s book about the content.

Several faculty members noted rethinking how instruction could best be delivered during the pandemic has improved teaching and learning overall — and will pay dividends when campus is able to return to more typical times.

“I know I’ve increased my teaching skills during the pandemic and I’ve heard colleagues say the same thing,” says Andrea Harris, an associate professor and chair of the School of Education’s Dance Department. “I took an online bootcamp in the spring 2021 semester and it made me reevaluate how I was teaching and utilizing learning goals, how I could improve communications with students, and how to better utilize tools such as Canvas (the online learning management system). That will help me as an educator moving forward.”

During the fall 2020 semester, the School of Education administered 462 courses — with 206 of those in person, 167 online, and 89 a hybrid of both.

These many efforts proved valuable. According to a campus survey of the fall 2020 semester, overall grades across UW– Madison were up from the previous year, while failing grades and the undergraduate withdrawal rate held steady (although there was a slight uptick for international students located abroad). In addition, course evaluations were generally comparable to prior years.

“I remember initially thinking delivering high-quality education during a pandemic is going to be impossible — that there’s no possible way instructors can do their job well or that students will be in a place to be able to learn well,” says Russ. “But that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t easy but we persevered.”

With the global pandemic entering its second year during the Spring 2021 semester, the nature of classroom experiences across UW–Madison continued to evolve. The majority of classes remained online or in a hybrid format in deference to the coronavirus, although some classes with under 50 students again continued in person or via a hybrid mode.

Like the fall semester, all those attending in person were required to wear face masks and physically distance. What was new for spring 2021 was that access to all campus buildings required faculty, staff, and students to display a green badge on the newly developed Safer Badgers app, signifying they were in compliance with required campus COVID-19 testing.

In the spring 2021 semester, there were 468 courses across the School of Education — with 117 in person, 297 online, and 88 hybrid (with 34 in more than one modality).

“One of the things that has changed during the pandemic is a renewed focus on teaching — and the Teaching Innovation grants and other efforts played a key role in making these efforts possible” says MERIT’s Lewis. “I believe this will continue to pay off moving forward.”

Expanding the School’s reach

The global pandemic has had far-ranging negative — and in some instances, disastrous — effects. As often happens during the harshest times, however, there emerged unanticipated positives.

“The pandemic has triggered a sort of renaissance in the performing arts,” says Chris Walker, a professor with the Dance Department and a faculty fellow with the School of Education. “Even before the pandemic, there was a consistent shift towards digital technology and how these technologies can be used to make the world a little bit smaller. For the past 15 to 20 years we’ve been in a global conversation in terms of access to the arts and who has access to performance.”

Chris Walker
“The pandemic has triggered a sort of renaissance in the performing arts,” says Chris Walker, a professor with the Dance Department and a faculty fellow with the School of Education.

Walker, who grew up in Jamaica learning to dance, explains that he only had access to what was made available on video or DVDs in the local library. And even these were already curated.

“What my students have access to through YouTube, through Instagram, and other media sharing platforms, is a plethora of global approaches to dance,” says Walker. “What the pandemic did was force us to put into practice some of the things that we thought were five to 10 years down the line.”

For example, on Feb. 26 Walker led the 14th annual production of “Moonshine,” a traditional performance gathering in celebration of Black History Month featuring dance, spoken

word, and experimental contemporary performance. This year’s event — which was virtual for the first time — featured appear- ances by First Wave Scholars, the First Wave Touring Ensemble, and “Take This River” — a work by Mark Hairston (Mark H.), an assistant professor with the School’s Department of Theatre and Drama. “Moonshine” was streamed live via YouTube and is now also archived here.

To be clear, there are many aspects of a live, in-person performance that can’t be replicated via a virtual format.

“We’re human beings and we identify ourselves as individuals through robust interactions with other human beings,” says Walker. “Performers take those interactions and that sharing of kinetic energy to a high art. You cannot recreate that in a virtual space.”

Nonetheless, the ability to reach a larger and broader audience that otherwise may never experience “Moonshine” is also intriguing.

“One of the things that has saddened me previously was people would show up for the (live performance) and we wouldn’t have enough seats,” Walker says of “Moonshine,” which is traditionally performed in the intimate, 240-seat Margaret H’Doubler Performance Space in Lathrop Hall. “But you don’t want to move to a larger theater because of the intimacy of that performance. So reaching a different and wider audience this year was really powerful to me.”

Similarly, Luis Columna’s Fit Families program for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families was forced to go virtual in March 2020. Previously, this theory-based, physical activity program was regularly hosting children with ASD and their families at venues on campus and elsewhere in Madison.

Columna and his team considered cancelling the pro- gram. Such a move, however, would be especially harmful to the very families the program is designed to support. While school closures are difficult for many, children with ASD were disproportionately affected by this situation, notes Columna. He realized parents — many lacking the time (due to work obligations), space, or teaching skills (particularly physical education skills) — were suddenly responsible for both engaging their children in educational learning and finding ways to keep kids active.

“The pandemic pushed us and made us think more creatively,” says Columna, an associate professor with the School’s Department of Kinesiology and a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico. “It’s always been our goal to bring the Fit Families pro- gram to more people — and the new infrastructure that we’ve created over the past year is going to allow us to expand these research-based services.”

With the changing landscape brought on by the coronavirus, Columna and this team transitioned to delivering online video workshops, while collecting feedback from parents via the Qualtrics survey platform. The Fit Families team was also communicating with participants via phone calls, text messages, and closed Facebook groups, where parents can also exchange information with each other.

Columna says the School of Education provided additional support to his program during the pandemic by covering fees related to mailing equipment and other materials that families traditionally received during in-person meetings.

Luis Columna
“The pandemic pushed us and made us think more creatively,” says Luis Columna, an associate professor with the School’s Department of Kinesiology and a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico. “It’s always been our goal to bring the Fit Families pro- gram to more people — and the new infrastructure that we’ve created over the past year is going to allow us to expand these research-based services.”

The team is developing an app that will further broaden the program’s reach and its ability to collect critical data on the effectiveness of the initiative. This fall, Columna’s team will be testing the effectiveness of some of these changes to the program with 45 families of children with ASD. Recruitment for the research project begins this summer.

“When we were in person in Madison, we could only reach so many families,” says Columna, who is also planning to trans- late this programming to Spanish. “We’ll now be able to reach families from New York to California. Without the pandemic, this would never have happened so quickly.”

During the fall 2020 semester and continuing through spring 2021, the School’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (OEDI) teamed up with its Office of Professional Learning and Community Education (PLACE) to produce a series of virtual symposia focused on critical issues of racial justice.

Events were titled: Leading Antiracist School Communities; Advancing Health Equity in the Era of COVID-19; Addressing Inequities in School Policies, Policing, and Discipline Practices; Advancing Hip Hop as a Path Toward Equity; The Power of Real Talk to Make Real Change; and Centering the Whole Child in Teaching and Learning. (All of the recordings from the symposia are available via this PLACE web page.)

“The pandemic has been difficult in so many ways,” says LaVar Charleston, who became the School of Education’s first associate dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion in June 2019. “We had done all this work and prepared a strategic plan for the School to start implementing important EDI work and then the pandemic hits and George Floyd is murdered and we’re trying to figure out how best to connect with our students and community when we can’t meet in person.”

The Real Talk for Real Change symposium is but one example of how the School continued its vital EDI efforts — and even broadened its reach. In all, more than 2,600 people signed up for the seven Real Talk for Real Change events, with people tuning in from campus, across the nation, and around the world.

Says Charleston: “It was a difficult situation — but also an opportunity.”

Forward, toward a new normal

Despite everyone’s best efforts and the success stories, to say the past year-and-a-half has been challenging would be an understatement.

Helen Lee, an associate professor with the School of Education’s Art Department, was blunt in explaining the significant efforts required to successfully run her glassblowing courses via a hybrid mode — including researching and implementing safe ways for students to hone their craft in the Glass Lab.

“I’m certainly not going to miss having giant hurdles in front of every single move,” says Lee, who holds a Helen Burish Faculty Fellowship.

Helen Lee in the UW Glass Lab
“I’m certainly not going to miss having giant hurdles in front of every single move,” says Lee, who holds a Helen Burish Faculty Fellowship.

The demands were persistent and barriers immense — much of which went unseen.

“The colossal shift from in person to remote instruction garnered the bulk of the media’s attention, but the effects of the pandemic have been more far-reaching,” says James Wollack, a professor and chair of the Department of Educational Psychology. “Many faculty and students have seen research projects delayed because of the inability to collect data, there are blurred work-life divisions, and many faculty, staff, and students have taken on roles of ‘teacher’ for their children, ‘health care worker’ for loved ones, or ‘social worker’ for vulnerable family members.”

Adds Wollack: “Yet, the resilience and compassion I have witnessed across our department and School astounds me. In my 30 years on campus, I have never been prouder of my colleagues than at this time.”

After well over a year of facing unprecedented challenges brought on by the pandemic, the end of the 2021 spring semester provided a shot of energy and a sense of optimism as students made a triumphant return to Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, May 8, for in-person commencement celebrations. There were two ceremonies — one for undergraduates and one for all graduate degree candidates — honoring more than 7,600 students who earned degrees (5,493 undergraduates, 1,266 master’s, and 871 doctoral candidates).

Because of the ongoing safety protocols, no family or friends were allowed in attendance, with the event being livestreamed. The School of Education launched a special commencement webpage — as it had for spring and winter 2020 — to highlight, recognize, and honor its nearly 600 graduates.

And while the spring 2021 commencement wasn’t quite like previous events in the many years prior to the pandemic, it nonetheless marked a turning point of sorts for the campus community.

“Seeing their collective joy at being able to celebrate together and in person was high among the happiest moments in the past 18 months,” UW–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank wrote in a message to campus in mid-May.

As vaccination rates climbed through the spring, campus continued to pivot and over the summer is preparing as if the upcoming fall semester will look much more like 2019, than 2020.

“We are a community that thrives on the connections between people who converse, learn, and discover together, in person,” Chancellor Blank wrote in a blog post. “Students make friends with people from entirely different backgrounds; students interact with top faculty in the classroom; faculty talk after a seminar and launch a new research project; and all of us create a campus culture through concerts, sporting events, Terrace evenings, visiting speakers, student organizations, and a constant flow of visitors from around the world who come here to speak and to learn.”

Dean Hess continues to stress that there remain many unknowns. And as she highlights in the following pages, there were plenty of lessons learned during the COVID-19 era — which will ultimately make the School of Education different but stronger moving forward.

“This isn’t going to be like a light switch — where we just flip it back on and everything is back to the way it was before the crisis began,” says Hess. “We will not go back to normal. Instead, we need to create a new normal — and we will.”